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  • Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice
  • Morten Schlütter (bio)
Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. Edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008. xiii, 337 pages. $26.00, paper.

Zen Ritual is the fourth installment in an informal series on Zen Buddhism, published by Oxford University Press and edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. The other books in the series are The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (2000), The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts (2004), and Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism (2005). Each of these volumes breaks new ground in the study of Zen, and they have functioned as venues for much of the most recent English-language research on Zen in the last decade.1 The volumes have collectively [End Page 142] challenged the popular Western image of Zen as a kind of nonreligion that transcends all religions, in which the kōan functions as an ineffable expression of ultimate reality, and whose literature is not literature at all but a direct record of the enlightened minds of ancient sages. Although this essentialist and romanticized model of Zen has been largely abandoned by academics working in East Asian Buddhism, it persists with great vitality in popular culture, evidenced by a steady stream of books with "Zen" in their titles. The Heine and Wright volumes are unusual in that they are scholarly books designed to appeal to an audience of both Zen enthusiasts and academics.

By its very title, Zen Ritual revs up the challenge a notch, and many of its essays are sure to provoke Western Zen Buddhists who understand Zen to be about unmediated experience, free of any distasteful ritualism. Although the series as a whole takes the term "Zen" to encompass Chinese Chan, Japanese Zen, and Korean Săn, Zen Ritual is almost exclusively about Zen in Japan. Furthermore, as the cover image of monks meditating facing a wall seems to hint at, most of the essays in Zen Ritual focus on Sōtō Zen, especially in their discussions of the contemporary period. In any case, Zen Ritual is a welcome book that helps to fill a serious void in our understanding of East Asian Buddhism. Ritual in Zen, and in all of East Asian Buddhism, is still relatively unexplored, in spite of earlier contributions by, for example, William Bodiford and Ian Reader and recent books by Duncan Williams and Jørn Borup.2

The first chapter in the volume, by T. Griffith Foulk, is entitled "Ritual in Japanese Zen Buddhism." Echoing the title of the book, this chapter is a sweeping essay (twice as long as the other essays) that deals with the role of ritual throughout the entire history of Zen in Japan. Foulk argues that the image of Zen as an antiritualistic direct path to enlightenment is a product of embarrassed post–Meiji Restoration Zen scholars (most of whom were and are also Zen monks) who felt they had to defend their religion from a hostile government and a wave of Western-inspired rationalism. Foulk shows that ritual is an integral part of Zen, not a later concession to "popular religion" but present right from the time it was first imported from China. Thus, funerary rites are central to the Zen sect in Japan (in fact, Zen monks first popularized the now ubiquitous practice of Buddhist funerals), and zazen, kōan training, and enlightenment are far from primary concerns of most Zen priests. Foulk's essay alone is worth the price of the whole volume, [End Page 143] and it will be especially useful in presenting a revisionist critique to an upper-level undergraduate audience.

The second chapter is "Chan Rituals of the Abbots' Ascending the Dharma Hall to Preach," by Mario Poceski. This is the only chapter in the book that deals with Chinese Chan. Poceski focuses on the shangtang (J: jōdō) ceremony in Chan monasteries, which at least after the Song dynasty (960–1279) was scheduled according to detailed rules and which was the occasion for the sermons that form the core of the famous "recorded sayings...


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